“This ought to be our endeavor, to conquer ourselves and daily wax stronger and make a further growth in holiness.” – Imitation of Christ, Thomas á Kempis (Moody Press, 1980)
Although the Rule of Benedict (RB) centers upon monastic life, its priorities, principles, precepts and practices apply to all Christians. Everyone who is alive in Christ recognizes the authority of Holy Scripture, wants to be holy, is passionate for prayer, expresses concern for the lost and comes from and is destined to community. Although a monastery may be intentionally Benedictine, and a parish may not be, both share pronounced commonalities.
The “Prologue” of the RB establishes the calling (“Listen”), commitment (“obedience” and “among you”) and curriculum (“holy teachings” and “duties”) of a community which is the “school of the Lord’s service.” This community or parish is more monastic than scholastic. It emphasizes living above learning without diminishing the value of either. The Benedictine parish concerns itself with the education of the heart, an education of heart that can only be comprehended in and through a community of prayer. The final paragraph of the “Prologue” promulgates priorities appropriate to monastic and parish life. These are: (1) Sound reasoning, (2) Amending faults, (3) Safeguarding love, (4) Remaining stable, (5) Preserving doctrine and (6) Vicarious suffering. Each encourages prayer and godliness. Without them, prayer and parish are impossible.
Our society prioritizes feeling. Rarely do we hear the words “I think” as an introduction to an assertion. Instead, highlighting an exceptionally dangerous trend, people tend to nuance (if not negate) their thinking with “I feel” pronouncements. We may “feel” that the world is flat, but sound reasoning suggests that it is not. We may “feel” that established doctrine needs to be changed, but biblical reasoning suggests that it should not be changed. We “feel” that we need to move from place to place in order to be spiritually, but reason suggests stability is a more effective path. We do indeed “feel” many things, but sound reasoning helps us to navigate them wisely. If all thought can be reduced to “I feel” categories, than all philosophies and theologies are on equal footing. If the need to change can be reduced to an “I feel” enterprise, very few people would change.
Benedict introduces “sound reasoning” into this unfortunate equation. If we are to live, love, pray and serve as a community, as a parish, we must learn to properly elevate the mind. This does not mean that head should dominate heart. It does that mean that the intellectual should negate the emotive. Both are needed. The Benedictine parish, however, understands that head informs heart and hands. Sound reason (the head) helps us amend faults, safeguard love, remain stable, preserve doctrine and suffer well. We must have sound reasoning in order to repent of sin and repair our lives. God calls us to reason, and the Benedictine parish will encourage a well-reasoned and prayerfully articulated faith.
Repentance requires a reasoned appreciation, albeit not an exhaustive appreciation, of right and wrong. One does not repent of something that s/he does not believe or know is wrong. As St. Paul says, somewhere, “how shall they know without a preacher?” The Bible tells us that God calls His wayward people to “reason” with Him. The re-education of the conscience and the heart requires an informed and intelligent faith. If we are to keep the Ten Commandments, we must at least know the Ten Commandments. If we are to embrace the teachings of the Beatitudes, we must at least know what they are. We must in some way know that we have sinned if we are to know that we need a Savior. And, as well, I must in some way know Christ in order to be saved by Christ. As Thomas ‘a Kempis has written in his Imitation, “He who would fully understand the words of Christ, must faithfully conform himself to the life of Christ.” Even a “General Confession” of sin implies at least a basic awareness of particular sin and an intention to amend it.
This does not mean that Christ and Christianity are only for the intelligent and educated. One does not need an advanced degree to follow God. One of the glories of the Gospel is that it effectively communicates the good news of Christ across all boundaries and barriers. Egg-heads and air-heads (and often there is not much difference) can both know and be known by Christ. Great minds do not always make for good hearts. Nevertheless, head informs heart. Transformation, according to Paul, is by the renewing of the mind.
In order to amend faults we must know what fault is, and what faults need amending. The amending of faults prepares and empowers us to parish life and effective prayer. Confession precedes community and conversation with God. Conviction precedes confession, confession precedes conversion, and conversion of life empowers conversation with the community and with God.
The amending of faults, under intelligent “advisement” and sometimes with a bit of “strictness,” helps to safeguard love. Benedict understands these small demands as essential to the narrow way of Christ. This narrow way, the way of living love, is a sweet yet suffering salvation. This means, of course, that the safeguarding of love requires some measure of self-sacrifice. It demands an expansion of heart. Common concerns outweigh personal preferences. To love is the truest amendment of fault. Love is repentance, reparation and renewal.
As with sound reasoning, we often misunderstand love. Love, more often than not, is embraced as a feeling but is rejected in its functional applications. We want excitement without expectation. We want license without limitation. We want the “yes” of relationship without the “no” it always requires. If we use the marital vows as an example, “I do” has been reduced to “I might” with a whole host of footnotes, appendices and nuances attached.
But a common life requires consistent commitment. Love “maybe” must yield itself to love “actually” (not, of course, referencing the film by the same title). Love must have head, heart and hands. And, as love is so easily misunderstood and transgressed, love must be safeguarded. This will require that we “beg our Lord to provide…that which our nature is unable to perform” (Prologue, paragraph 7). We must be graced for growth. We must be schooled in love. We must be educated in the common life. The Benedictine parish guards the common good just as God calls us to guard the exclusivities and expectations of “I do.”
This requires stability — one of the foundations of Benedictine spirituality. Amending faults and disciplined stability safeguard love. We stay together so that we can pray together. Stability supports supplication. Community undergirds conversation with God. Community is the means of conversion.
Depth is not attained when we are unstable in our commitments to each other. As John the Divine writes, we cannot love God unless we love our neighbor. If we are always shifting our commitments, church-hopping and church-shopping, we will never be able to live, love or pray well. We cannot say that we love at a distance. We must involve ourselves in the mess of community. We must involve ourselves in the mess of parish life.
Problems certainly do exist. They always, in this life, will. People are people. We cannot get around this. We are human and, even as the Body of Christ, we do not always function as we would like. People say and do things that are contrary to Christian commitment. The pastor is dull. The liturgy is repetitive. The parish cannot sing. The music is bad. The people are, at times, vicious. The ill-behaved child behind you, who is perpetually kicking your chair, is a brat. And yet, facing reality as it is, this is where the real Christ, real community, real change, real conversation and real conversion are encountered, embraced and empowered. The knuckleheads in pulpit and pew make poignant the petitions in the prayer our Lord taught us. Stability affords opportunity for sanctification and supplication.
Benedict and his community call us to persevere in doctrine. Given the swiftly shifting theological sands, this is a subject of many books. In fact, many books of polarized opinions have been written. Nevertheless, in spite of the changes that we have seen and experienced, preserving doctrine is critical to the Benedictine parish. A well-preserved doctrine is a well-proclaimed doctrine. We need right information for effective transformation.
Some years ago I heard a pastor tell his parish that they could stand up or sit down according to the beliefs they affirmed or rejected in the Apostles’ Creed. If any member of the congregation thought that a certain part of the creedal statement was true, they were asked to stand. If they did not believe a statement was true, they were asked to sit. As the Creed was recited, the congregation looked like a bunch of misfiring pistons.
This is funny until we understand that I am not referencing misfiring pistons as much as I am referencing misfiring parishes. If the church does not speak the same language in the same way, in dynamic agreement with the past, they will swiftly go nowhere. If we do not have the message, we have nothing to say. If we distort the message we dilute its effectiveness. Truth is not truth if it is distorted truth. Remember Babel: One cannot construct without using the same language and in the same way.
Of course we must understand that proclamation is by word and deed. We must know right, speak right and do right. In the final paragraph of the “Prologue,” the RB dynamically unites God’s commandments with “His teaching,” “His doctrine,” Christ’s sacrifice (united with our own) and “His kingdom.” Benedict is not arbitrary. His emphasis is firmly fixed. Revelation and relationship are always related. Knowing and doing are connected. We cannot invent our own Christ. We cannot invent doctrine. Both are revealed and received. We cannot be a Benedictine community without being a biblical community.
The parish that is Benedictine is a salvifically suffering community. It must always be so. Our Lord was incarnated for the purpose of crucifixion. He is our example. Through his baptism Christ identified with our sin. Through his temptation Christ wrestled with our wilderness wandering. Through his private Gethsemane Christ sweat the blood of our own personal darkness. Through his public death Christ suffered our private rejections. Through his hell Christ entered our hell. As with Christ, so with each and every believer. We must, as Paul asserts in Colossians 1: 24, “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”
The Benedictine community is a community of radical identification with others. This means that, because we are all human and fallen, we must all learn to accommodate ourselves to the weakness of others. We must be armed with such a purpose. To enter the Benedictine enclosure opens us up to every human frailty and failure. This requires the purpose, petition and power of forgiveness.
The Benedictine parish is a patient participation in the sufferings of Christ. The Prologue of the RB makes this quite clear. It is, before the promise of the kingdom, the very last word before we really get down to the business of being a community of prayer. To open our mouths requires that we open our hearts.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.